Strangers when we meet
Fri January 9, 2009 11:50 pm

Consider the staggering difficulties facing the speaker-designate. His fundamental problem is that so many members don’t know him, and vice-versa. I have talked to two members in recent days who didn’t even know where he sat on the floor–and in both cases, they sat just a couple of seats away from him.

I sympathize. Every session I grab a seating chart, sit in the gallery, and try to locate the new members and learn to recognize them. It’s hard. The first time I worked on the Best and Worst Legislators story, a colleague who was the lead writer on the story and I were sitting in the gallery, on the last night, and I heard the reading clerk recite the members of a conference committee. One of the names was Ed Mayes. “Mayes?” I said to my colleague. “Mayes? Is there a Mayes in the House?” We decided if we hadn’t heard of him after 139 days, he must be Furniture.

Most speakers have worked the members for a year or more before they get elected. They have served with them, seen them in action, probably over several sessions. Take Craddick: He has been a representative for so long that he knew everybody. And his style was to get to know the freshmen, who nobody else was paying attention to, and take them to breakfast, not just once but on several occasions. Tom Craddick owned every Republican freshman class that came to the House of Representatives. By the time a session was over, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of everybody in each class.

The art of being a legislator doesn’t lie in reading the bills or knowing the issues. It consists of building relationships. Rick Perry is governor today because of the relationships he built on the Appropriations committee in the 1980s. A legislator has to know who he can trust and whose motives are well grounded. You can’t learn these things from a distance.

I wish Joe Straus well. I want him to succeed–just as, in the beginning, I wished Tom Craddick well and wanted him to succeed. But I think there are going to be some difficult moments, because he hasn’t had the time to build the relationships he needs. The closest parallel I can think of is Price Daniel Jr. in 1973, who was speaker right after the Sharpstown Scandal and the House had a freshman majority. Despite his famous name–his father had been governor–Daniel was a weak and unsuccessful speaker. Straus is better situated. He will earn good will (and some not-so-good will) – simply by being Not Tom Craddick, but far more good than bad. It’s still going to be a challenge for a stranger to be a successful speaker.

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